Chávez Returns to Venezuela

| Jul. 5, 2011 |

Published by New York Times //pdf1//

Simon Romero

Those were the words uttered in surprise by many Venezuelans on Monday morning as they awoke to images on state television showing President Hugo Chávez making an unexpected, but well-choreographed, return after nearly a month away, during which he underwent cancer surgery in Cuba.

“I’m very happy to be home again,” said Mr. Chávez, embracing his brother, Adán Chávez, and Vice President Elías Jaua, after stepping onto the tarmac at the Maiquetía airport near Caracas Monday morning.

The president, in marked contrast from his somber address to the nation last week announcing his battle with cancer, seemed ebullient on Monday. He broke into song, regaled viewers with a tale of a mission to Guatemala as a young army officer and recited some lines of politically-inspired verse from memory.

The predawn return of Mr. Chávez, 56, was classic political theater from a leader who has vexed his critics here time and again during his 12 years in power. Mystery still shrouds the sensitive subject of Mr. Chávez’s health; he did not announce the type of cancer he was struggling with or from what part of his body a cancerous tumor was removed in Cuba.

On Friday, Mr. Jaua, the vice president, even held out the possibility that Mr. Chávez could continue managing affairs as head of state from abroad for as long as six months if necessary, emboldening opponents who saw a prolonged absence as an opportunity to weaken Mr. Chávez’s grip on the nation.

But even as the disclosure of Mr. Chávez’s vulnerability obsessed the nation in recent days, here he was on Venezuelan soil again, gingerly descending the stairway of his Airbus, dressed athletically in a track suit, taking the reins of the political debate. He had time to log onto Twitter, too.

“Good morning, my dear Venezuela!” Mr. Chávez wrote in a Twitter message sent Monday to almost 1.7 million followers. “Thank you, my God! It is the start of the Return!”

Mr. Chávez’s return on Monday holds symbolic importance here because raucous Venezuelan Independence Day celebrations are scheduled for tomorrow, July 5, and Mr. Chávez has emphasized a state ideology that blends nationalism, socialist-inspired welfare projects and reverence for his commanding personality.

“Chávez’s return is the best gift that could have been received by Venezuela on its 200th anniversary of its independence,” said Gloria Torres, 50, who had organized a Roman Catholic mass over the weekend in support of the president.

Others in this polarized nation, however, were not so happy on Monday.

“I’ll be buying some antidepressants,” said José Manuel, 52, a businessman who declined to give his last name.

Fernando Ochoa Antich, a former defense minister, said that Mr. Chávez’s return for the independence celebrations involved the “magic” image required of the “caudillo,” or Latin American strongman. The president’s political personality, Mr. Ochoa Antich said, “is fundamentally based on him being a type of magic being.”

“The caudillo needs to appear invincible, which gives him the fundamental popular force that has helped Chávez preserve power all these years,” Mr. Ochoa Antich said.

State media covered Mr. Chávez reappearance in adulatory fashion. The state news agency headlined one story, “He returned, he returned, he returned!”

Some Venezuelans pondered the strategic reasoning behind Mr. Chávez’s return.

“I think this was a completely predictable event,” said Luis Vicente León, a political analyst and pollster. “He needed to immediately eliminate pessimism among his followers and avoid internal power struggles.”

Still, Mr. León said, “Simply being here might offer an image of battling to overcome his illness, but does not resolve the problem of the illness itself.”

Mr. Chávez, who is running for reelection as president next year, convened followers to appear this afternoon under the balcony of the president palace, where he said he would address them. Speaking to state television in a telephone interview, he even described his Venezuelan breakfast on Monday, which included a serving of beef.

“I’m devouring everything,” he said.

María Eugenia Díaz and Girish Gupta contributed reporting